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Mexico’s López Obrador Is Pulling an Erdogan on Biden

By reducing U.S.-Mexican relations to migration, Biden is letting himself be played—and ignoring a crisis south of the border.

By , a professor at New York University and former Mexican foreign minister.
López Obrador speaks in Mexico City
Mexican President of Mexico Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks at Palacio Nacional in Mexico City on Sept. 26, 2020. Hector Vivas/Getty Images

Mexico was never a priority for U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy agenda—and still isn’t. But the border and immigration have been Republican priorities for years. Inheriting a so-called border crisis—largely a fabrication of the Trump administration—the Biden White House finds itself forced to devote more time and energy to the United States’ southern neighbor than it expected at the beginning of its term. A long list of Biden officials have visited Mexico, including Vice President Kamala Harris, the secretary of homeland security, the deputy CIA director, the U.S. trade representative, and the White House drug enforcement team. Virtual encounters have included Biden, his secretary of state, and the energy secretary. The outcome of this diplomatic blitz is uncertain, and prospects aren’t very encouraging—at least for now.

The issue is not so much whether U.S.-Mexican relations are cruising along or in crisis. In fact, most of the U.S.-Mexican bilateral agenda isn’t even visible, with the Biden administration—just like its predecessor—single-mindedly focused on the border and immigration.

Mexico was never a priority for U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy agenda—and still isn’t. But the border and immigration have been Republican priorities for years. Inheriting a so-called border crisis—largely a fabrication of the Trump administration—the Biden White House finds itself forced to devote more time and energy to the United States’ southern neighbor than it expected at the beginning of its term. A long list of Biden officials have visited Mexico, including Vice President Kamala Harris, the secretary of homeland security, the deputy CIA director, the U.S. trade representative, and the White House drug enforcement team. Virtual encounters have included Biden, his secretary of state, and the energy secretary. The outcome of this diplomatic blitz is uncertain, and prospects aren’t very encouraging—at least for now.

The issue is not so much whether U.S.-Mexican relations are cruising along or in crisis. In fact, most of the U.S.-Mexican bilateral agenda isn’t even visible, with the Biden administration—just like its predecessor—single-mindedly focused on the border and immigration.

On that topic, at least, Biden’s first steps have been constructive. He undid former President Donald Trump’s disastrous and xenophobic measures by halting construction of the border wall, restoring hearings for asylum on U.S. soil, reinstating protections for childhood immigrants, eliminating the Muslim ban, and at least attempting to stop deportations of nonviolent crime perpetrators. Other much-needed and laudable decisions include the imminent cancellation of the use of Title 42 deportations on public health grounds and the submission of major immigration reform to the U.S. Congress. Legalizing the status of and creating a path to U.S. citizenship for more than 11 million foreigners living in the country illegally (as well as for “Dreamers” and Central American holders of temporary protected status) would be a very big deal, as Biden might put it. The idea of working with Mexico to invest meaningful funds in the Northern Triangle countries—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—also makes sense, as does granting Venezuelans temporary protected status.

The problem is that next to all these positive decisions and proposals, Biden is also trying to control a “crisis at the border,” a Republican exaggeration that risks damaging the president’s standing with the American public. Stopping the so-called surge of Central American families transiting Mexico to the U.S. border has been made a priority to avoid an image debacle for the new president. And just as it was during similar so-called surges during the Obama and Trump administrations, the only immediate, realistic, and effective way to do that seems to be letting Mexico do the United States’ dirty work. Only the Mexican government, so the thinking goes, can stop the flow of refugees and economic migrants from the Northern Triangle—preferably at Mexico’s southern border, otherwise at its northern one. (The United States doesn’t much care either way.) In the other direction, only the authorities in Mexico City can allow the reentry of thousands of Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan deportees from the United States.

The Biden administration seems unaware of the consequences of Mexican instability for the United States.

The Biden administration has therefore decided to copy Trump by cutting a shortsighted, cynical deal with Mexico. Biden has obtained the cooperation of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to address the short-term so-called crisis of unaccompanied minors arriving at the southern border. In exchange, the Biden team is turning a blind eye to López Obrador’s catastrophic mismanagement of everything in Mexico: the pandemic, the economy, crime and violence, democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. This myopic approach, in fact, ensures that the real long-term challenge for the United States—Mexican economic, political, and social stability, with its obvious repercussions north of the border—will get dramatically harder to manage.

Biden has, in fact, fallen into López Obrador’s version of the Erdogan trap. Back in 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was able to finagle a deal with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European Union leaders that essentially paid him to throttle migration to the EU. Turkey received 6 billion euros ($7.1 billion) from Brussels, a first-ever visa waiver for its citizens when traveling to the EU, and an erstwhile reopening of EU accession talks. In exchange, Ankara agreed to halt the massive flow of refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries flooding into Greece and from there to the rest of Europe. In late June, the EU approved an additional payoff of 3 billion euros ($3.5 billion) for Turkey to continue hosting the refugees. In addition, Germany has sold six high-tech submarines to Turkey, despite Greek objections. And since there are still more than 3 million refugees in Turkey, Erdogan’s shakedown will likely continue.

López Obrador would like money, though perhaps not submarines. He suggested that Washington provide $4 billion for the Northern Triangle and southeastern Mexico. But what he really sought—and obtained—from Trump and Biden has been something much more valuable for him: having Washington refrain from meddling in Mexican affairs and turn a blind eye to whatever he does on a score of fronts, including those that directly affect the United States, from the mismanagement of Mexico’s economic crisis to the inability to rein in the drug cartels responsible for the fentanyl and other drug epidemics among Americans. López Obrador needs this indifference dearly. Conversely, the Biden administration seems unaware of the consequences of Mexican instability for the United States.

Since the middle of 2020, the number of Mexicans leaving their country to seek jobs north of the border has begun to rise significantly. In 2018, before López Obrador became president and the Mexican economy was growing (albeit slowly), apprehensions of Mexicans entering the United States illegally averaged around 18,500 per month. In 2019, after the start of López Obrador’s open-arms policy toward Central Americans, apprehensions of Mexicans at the border remained almost the same. By the second half of 2019, however, detentions of Mexicans started rising sharply. The figure topped 70,000 in May, the highest since 2005.

After a likely summer dip, mainly due to the scorching heat that slows travel, these numbers may soar again. Here’s why: For the first time since the mid-1990s, Mexico and the United States are experiencing diametrically opposed economic performance. Back then, the Mexican economy collapsed, while the United States enjoyed the best years of the Clinton-era boom. As a result, illegal migration from Mexico skyrocketed, with the overall unauthorized population growing from 2.9 million in 1995 to 6.9 million by the first decade of the millennium. Today the United States is undergoing a formidable economic recovery after a relatively modest shrinkage last year. Mexico, on the other hand, is mired in its worst economic depression since the 1930s, with a contraction of 8.5 percent last year. Barely half of that will likely be recouped in 2021.

Given this contrast, who do you think will build Biden’s highways and bridges? Who will man the construction sites carpeting the suburbs during the new housing boom? Who will serve patrons in the restaurants Americans are flocking to again, now that a majority is vaccinated? Not Honduran children or American hard hats but Mexican migrants, with or without papers, whose arrival in the north will be jet-propelled by simultaneous U.S. pull and Mexican push.

The push factors notably include López Obrador’s retrograde nationalist, statist, populist, and authoritarian streaks that are driving the country into the ground. His tenure’s economic numbers—growth, investment, and employment—are pitiful. His social policies, while popular, consist exclusively of handing out subsidies to older people, unemployed youth, people with disabilities, and poor farmers—populist handouts that don’t find anyone jobs. His pet infrastructure projects—such as an oil refinery in his home state of Tabasco and the “Maya Train” that will crisscross the Yucatán Peninsula—are unviable, environmentally unsound, or expensive white elephants. All of this comes as spending on health and education shrinks or stagnates and long-overdue reform of Mexico’s weak tax system is nowhere on the horizon. With a weak opposition, a cowed business elite, a terrified judiciary, a disorganized civil society, and a military bought off by huge contracts, one of the few remaining avenues for change is pressure from Washington.

Many aspects of Mexico’s crisis and López Obrador’s politics are already spilling into the United States. The fentanyl epidemic among Americans, which claimed nearly two-thirds of the projected 90,000 opioid overdose deaths in 2020, is clearly one of them. Practically all U.S. imports of the drug come from Mexico today. Presumably U.S. authorities don’t approve of López Obrador’s live-and-let-live policies toward the cartels responsible for the production and distribution of fentanyl and other drugs. His lax attitude is characterized by his “hugs and not bullets” slogan and his acknowledgement that organized crime “behaved well” during the June 6 legislative and local elections in Mexico.

While the Biden administration has made the fight against corruption a key element in its Latin America policy, it has persistently exempted Mexico.

Similarly, López Obrador’s rollback of Mexico’s 2014 reform of the oil and electricity sectors has been strongly criticized by U.S. companies, trade groups, and members of the U.S. Congress. Restricting transmission priorities for renewable energy produced by foreign and particularly American investors is a sore spot; so is the fate of U.S. oil companies either exploring in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico or importing U.S. gasoline for their thousands of gas stations in Mexico. U.S. companies have also complained about the Mexican government purportedly violating the provisions of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, including those covering labor, the environment, fishing, and U.S. agricultural exports.

These contentious questions lead back to a fundamental ingredient of U.S.-Mexican relations that is always present but rarely invoked publicly: the weakness of the rule of law in Mexico, which affects every issue on the bilateral agenda. This ongoing weakness has led human rights groups and the U.S. Congress to denounce the growing militarization of Mexican law enforcement and the threats or restrictions faced by the judicial branch, autonomous agencies, the media, and civil society. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Article 19, and the American Bar Association have voiced their criticisms in both public and private to the Biden team—but to no avail. In a similar vein, while the Biden administration has made the fight against corruption a key element in its Latin America policy, it has persistently exempted Mexico, despite widespread corruption. Indeed, the administration has gone as far as seeking Mexican cooperation in the fight against corruption in the Northern Triangle—a foreign-policy oxymoron if there ever were one.

In a sense, U.S.-Mexican relations are at a standstill. Immigration has hijacked the agenda, and López Obrador is playing Washington with his control over the tap of Central American refugees. The bigger, long-term issue—making the Mexican economy grow and create well-paying jobs, including some for Central Americans—is being obscured by bromides about “root causes” in the Northern Triangle and the understandable preoccupation with children’s shelters. No one should need reminding that there are barely 30 million people in the Northern Triangle, whereas there are nearly 130 million in Mexico. With López Obrador at the height of his power and folly, for Washington to view its neighbor only through the lens of immigration could be labeled reckless.

Jorge Castañeda is a professor at New York University, a former Mexican foreign minister, and the author of America Through Foreign Eyes. Twitter: @JorgeGCastaneda

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